Tips on How to Manage Parents' Expectations
It's hard enough to manage the expectations of the young people living in your student housing communities. Owners and operators in our business, though, often face their biggest challenge in dealing with their "other" roster of customers: the parents who often pay the monthly rent. Handling their concerns as they send their sons and daughters out into the world and into your units requires empathy and patience. One man who has experience in this regard is Alex O'Brien, president of Cardinal Group Management. His Colorado-based company specializes in student housing and multifamily property management. As a result, he has first-hand knowledge of what how best to handle the worries and concerns of mom and dear old dad:
NATIONAL APARTMENT ASSOCIATION: Managing parents' expectations can be such a challenge in the student housing business. What are some challenges that parents of student residents bring to the table for operators such as yourself?
ALEX O'BRIEN: I think the cliché talk in student housing is that you are leasing to two people, the student and their parents. So, you have two people who are financially responsible for the lease. You have the parents who don't always pay, but for a lot of our customers do. They often have the stance: "Well, if I'm going to be the one paying, I have a certain level of expectations for my student." The trick is finding out what the parents expect to get out of their property manager. Is it a house mom? Is it a tutor? Is it a security police all rolled into one? Many parents have the hope that the property management company will be a part of their students' growth while they are away at school. Many times, we are called and asked to be the eyes for the parents. "Have you seen my son or daughter doing this?" As a business, we are responsible for property management, collecting rent, and maintaining the building. But then the parents often layer on other responsibilities to that.
NAA: Do you and your staff accept those responsibilities? Or is there tension there?
AO: It comes with the territory. One thing we try to do is really define our role and define expectations with the parents. All student housing is not created equal. There is everything from dorm-style product to Class A, high-rise, off-campus living. With each one, that helps define those expectations. With freshmen, I think parents expect that we will augment what would be the on-campus lifestyle -- everything from intramural sports to tutors. Parents have the expectation that you are filling in for the university. Contractually, we don't have to do that. We're just managing the lease. But, at the same time, part of the lifestyle you try and sell is an alternative to on-campus living. The students basically try to keep the parents out of it. The biggest time for customer service is at move-in when the parents are usually there helping their students move in. The number of requests from parents is highest at that time.
NAA: What are some of the techniques you try and impart on your staff in terms of managing parents?
AO: The property management industry is governed by two things. One is fair housing, and the other is the lease document. We really start at those two. Obviously, you always have to practice Fair Housing rules. Obviously, you always have to defer back to what have you agreed to in the lease document. I think installment loans are something that most parents are not used to, but are very common in student housing. You have 12 equal payments of the rent amount even though with the requirement to turn the building each year, it's not always 12 months of occupancy. We also have community guidelines that we train on. We also try and instill in our team empathy. We tell them, "Put yourself in what parents are going through. Try and make things right, because getting off on the right foot really does matter." If the parents are happy, the students are usually happy and that leads to a much better lease term, a much better living experience, and a much better renewal rate.
NAA: How has technology changed the relationship you have with parents?
AO: At most of our communities, the parents do have log-ins to both a rent payment portal and a work-order portal. Some students, especially if this is their first time living away from home, rely on their parents to submit work orders. The son or the daughter may have gone to them first and said, "Hey Mom or Dad, this isn't working. What do I do?"
NAA: Are you finding moms and dads are becoming more techno-savvy, and is there an opportunity there to use that to your advantage in dealing with them?
AO: They are definitely much more techno-savvy. I definitely see that as a growing trend where parents are definitely utilizing technology. That certainly hasn't replaced the old-school technology of picking up the phone and calling the manager to let him or her hear about their issues.
NAA: Do any of your onsite managers ever assign someone on their staff to be a liaison to parents? Someone who they can shuffle all of the calls to so he/she can focus on the rest of their duties and responsibilities?
AO: Yeah, sometimes. But we really support our onsite managers from our headquarters. We send people from our headquarters to each move-in, because we just recognize that it is a very busy time, parents aside. During normal operations, we want our managers to address parent concerns. If they are unable to come to a solution, we escalate it up to headquarters. I even take calls and take emails, depending on the situation. And sometimes, there is nothing anyone can do. Sometimes a parent is just unhappy with their son or daughter. There might be a situation where there son or daughter was removed from school for whatever reason, and now they want the lease cancelled. And that's not how the lease documents are written. We do everything we can to meet their expectations and do the right thing. But sometimes, I just can't tell them what they want to hear. But we understand that this is a big investment for many parents. We do understand how important it is to parents that their kid is in a safe, clean environment and that they are getting their money's worth.
NAA: Finally, do you have an anecdotal story you can share where you met a difficult parent's expectations?
AO: I've definitely been in situations where I've had a parent come up to me and say, "Hey, I don't understand this installment lease. We're moving in on the 20th, and yet I am paying a full month?" The next thing you know, I have 15 parents surrounding me in a circle saying, "Yeah, yeah! I have the same question!" Our managers have to be prepared for such situations. I was in San Antonio last year, and I found myself surrounded by a dozen or more parents all needing an explanation of the installment loan and how it works and why it works. That it's actually one lump sum, and you are paying the first of 12 equal payments. When you're committed to customer service, you need to be patient and willing to answer the same question multiple times if that's what it takes.
By Teddy Durgin